Fyllis Hockman

This is not going to be your typical travel story. Oh sure, it started out that way. A story about a tour sponsored by Overseas Adventure Travel they called “The Crossroads of the Adriatic.” It was going to be all about the medieval town of Dubrovnik in Croatia, a series of dozens of waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes, streaming down cliffs, cascading over rocks, weaving through brush over an expanse of 114-square miles, exploring Sarajevo in Bosnia, a city that suffered through the longest, most devastating siege by Serbia’s hands in the history of modern war and a visit to Ljubljana, Slovenia, my newest favorite European city with broad promenades, wide pedestrian-only walkways and multiple town squares. And that’s just the tip of the itinerary that brought a new adventure to our group of 16 day after day. But that’s where the story veered into trouble…

I found myself being equally surprised and delighted by all the little extra things we were seeing and doing — and yes, often eating — that were NOT on the itinerary that I decided makes an interesting story in and of itself. Because, in all my travels with other tour companies, this has not always been the case.

This is not meant as a love letter to OAT but rather my impressions of a travel philosophy of “Learning and Discovery” which OAT takes very seriously and which elevated an already enticing itinerary into a far more expansive travel opportunity.

During our first day, we explored the Old Town of Dubrovnik, still resembling its 15th century heritage, scaling its huge fortress walls to enjoy exhilarating views of the Adriatic coast. At night, ostensibly nothing is planned –- until our ever-creative and ingenious guide, Ivana, notices a small sign on an old church announcing a string quartet concert. So with mostly make-shift chairs set up in the tiny church, we join the locals in a surprisingly professional performance.

2. Dubrovnik

Enroute home from Montenegro, a small country boasting ancient villages, a bay designated by UNESCO as one of the 25 most beautiful, aristocratic mansions and a baroque shrine — in other words a full day of historical exploration included in our itinerary — we stop to visit a local (and yes, you will soon tire of that word…) embroidery artisan in traditional dress who regales us with the intricate process of embroidery, with an initial introduction to the silkworm who makes it all possible — literally. The little buggers are there in all its iterations from birth to thread. Admittedly for me, it was a little late in the evening to be all that interested in the lifecycle of a silkworm taking place before my eyes, but others in the group seemed more enamored.

3. Church on island

At a small farmhouse where we spent the night near Slavonia, Croatia’s breadbasket, several women admired the pottery in the kitchen. Next day? Another unscheduled stop — this time at the potter’s shop — not only to buy, of course, but also to learn about the process of how the different cups and bowls were made. Ivana just set it up — she certainly didn’t have to. And she even convinced the potter to open up to accommodate us even though it was the end of the season.  Very persuasive, our Ivana. And because this was a stop mainly for the women she promised to find something comparable for the men. Of course, she didn’t have to look any further than a local brew pub in the next town.

4. Farmhousepottery

Onto Bosnia-Herzegovina. And I need to pause here for a little history. The four countries we visited, along with Serbia and Macedonia, used to comprise Yugoslavia, where Marshall Tito reigned from 1945-1980 as a much-beloved, both then and surprisingly still, benevolent dictator, although admittedly not to those who disagreed with him. When he died, the economy crumbled, unemployment skyrocketed, and the unity and harmony among the many populations — Roman Catholics Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and assorted Jews, who lived, worked and intermarried together — deteriorated into nationalistic jingoism and animosity. The Bosnian War of 1991-1996 was the result.

In Bosnia, the main L&D surprises revolved around food. First, an unscheduled stop at a roadside stand where Ivana bought enough tangerines, the agricultural specialty of a very verdant river valley enroute to our next town, to last for the rest of the trip. Crossing over from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina meant transitioning from Roman Catholic churches to Islamic mosques. Pocitelj, the first town we stopped in, is a typical old Muslim village frozen in time from the late 15th Century. Streets of rocky cobblestones transporting us back to the Middle Ages were marred only by an avalanche of tourist stands with local souvenirs. I always feel so guilty for ignoring the plaintive entreaties to buy, stand after stand after stand. I was happy to get back to our tangerines.

And then there’s the Tunnel of Life, the very low, narrow, dimly lit secret dirt passageway that led from under an airfield in Sarajevo to the Adriatic Sea. It was the only access to food, water, small arms and medical supplies that brought the only relief to the city of 400,000 who were victims of the longest, most devastating siege in the history of (modern) warfare, as Serbia cut off all food, water, electricity, and medicines to the Muslim population it was trying to destroy. As we watched a video of the city disappearing building by building, street by street, explosion by explosion, Ivana tried to soften the emotional blow by plying us with burek, sweet Bosnian pastries. They helped, but just a little.

And did I mention the visit to a local mountain village priest — he just happened to be a personal friend of Ivana’s — ostensibly, of course, to learn a little more about the village lifestyle but I think the blueberry strudel that he himself cooked and the wine from nearby vineyards were more than sufficient incentive for the extra drive. The beautiful 18th C church was just a bonus.

And while sampling truffles in one of the Istrian hill towns outside of Lovran, Ivana was asked how truffles are found. A quick phone call later and another detour of the bus (we had a very accommodating bus driver who sometimes seemed in cahoots with Ivana as to what surprise to spring next), we were meeting with a truffle hunter and his dog, Riki — who demonstrated the well-protected art of finding the evasive white and black gourmet gold.

5. Trufflehunting

In case our three squares a day weren’t sufficient, even the local guides and bus driver got into the act by providing us with even more to eat in the way of local snacks: “You can’t possibly leave (fill in the town) without sampling (fill in the delicacy…)” was their mantra. Among the many savory offerings were the best of regional chocolates, the yummiest roasted chestnuts, the finest Bosnian coffee, the sweetest rahat lokum (Turkish delight), the grandest Istrian truffles, the best of cream cakes, the most delicious Bosnian burek, the mouth watering strudel from Father Robbie’s oven, and my personal favorite, an almost endless amount of regional brandies at every stop. Blame the superlatives on Ivana.

During out tour of Zagreb, the sprawling European Croatian capital, the recent culinary L&D expanded into the arts. Though ample free time is always factored into the tours — what should be time off for Ivana — she instead saw it as an opportunity to provide more options for her ever-greedy charges. In this case, tickets to either a jazz contest or the ballet, simply because they were in town when we were.

6. Zagreb

And when our Learning and Discovery adventures kept us on the bus traveling from town to town, country to country, they didn’t stop. As impressive as all our unscheduled stops were, even more so was Ivana’s constant tales of history, culture, Tito, controversies, architecture, Tito, education, economics, Tito — yes, they want him back — plus personal experiences and other tantalizing tidbits day after day. The fact that it was still as fascinating by the end of week two is even more of a phenomenal accomplishment.

So yes, my usual travel articles deal with the destination; this one with the journey. And what made that journey so unusual were the many moments of learning and discovery that jumped off the itinerary page and into my heart. Thank you, Ivana.  For more information, visit Crossroads of the Adriatic.

 

The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.

The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh’s most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago.

Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King’s Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery — and misery.
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The exhibit breathes new life into this underground world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then –- though without any contagious aspects –- the Real Mary King’s Close provides amazing insight into a period of history with which many are totally unfamiliar –- and it’s been preserved in an authentic environment and historically accurate depiction that defies most “commercial” historical reproductions.
It is eerie meandering up and down along dark, circuitous unpaved passageways, beaten down earth floors (good walking shoes are a must; wheelchair accessible it is not) –- past room after room, each with its own story to tell –- a projection of people who lived in the Close in the mid-16th-19th centuries. I almost feel an intruder, the subtle lighting enhancing the effects of a shadowy past.
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The inhabitants — ranging from those gracing a grand 16th century townhouse to plague victims of the 17th century to the third-generation saw makers who departed in 1902, when the last section was finally interred — are not composites of might-have-beens; the lives recounted are based on real people gleaned from primary documentation (written at the time) and preserved in the Scottish Office of Records and its archives.
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Lighting conveys the supernatural nature of the attraction as much as does the narrative. Only “practicals” –- original methods of lighting the dwellings –- are used, re-creating the actual lighting conditions of the 17th-18th centuries. Candle light illuminates one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A single low-watt light bulb brings others into hazy focus.

The dark hallways are lit by lantern-like “bowats,” providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants –- no more or less than was available to the tenants at the time. The concept of atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.

Rounding one curve reveals a large window, lit by a gloomy, greenish, unhealthy light. A doctor emerges, tending to bed-ridden figures, covered with sores, boils and diseased skin. It’s the home of John Craig, a grave-digger who has already succumbed to the “visitation of the pestilence,” his body awaiting “collection.”

His wife, Janet, and three sons suffer from varying stages of the deadly malady. The Doctor is lancing a boil on the eldest son, Johnnie, with a hot iron to seal and disinfect the wound. Repellant odors arising from the family chamber pot of vomit provide a little more “reality” than even today’s cable TV has prepared me for. By the door there is bread, ale and coal delivered to the quarantined family. The townspeople want to ensure the afflicted stay in their homes, so the healthy have good reason to give generously.

And therein lies the tragedy of Mary King’s Close -– much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck its residents fiercely; as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside to be carried away by those designated to perform the loathsome task. Mary King’s Close was a pariah in the neighborhood –- and ultimately fell victim to its own diseased fate. It disappeared, as well.

With more than two dozen stops along the tour path — each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history –- I became intimately acquainted with the residents who lived there.
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Mary King herself, of course, who moved here with her four children in 1629 after her husband died. You’ll get to meet her personally and boy, does she have some good stories to tell!

While listening to the story of another early dweller, the narration is interrupted by a scream from across the way. We quickly run to see what happened. The widow Allison Rough, murder weapon in hand, is standing over her son-in-law Alexander Cant, a prominent Burgess of Edinburgh, whose body lay on the floor –- the dowry agreement over which they have been fighting still in his hand. Events leading up to the murder, as well as its aftermath, are wound into a true-to-life rendition of Allison’s memorable life.

Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre –- all authenticated by original documentation –- abound as we wend our way around the windy, up-and-down corridors. Shifts in lighting reflect the various circumstances. Not to mention the assorted ghosts (the only residents not authenticated by original documentation) who are said to inhabit the property.

Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard discovery. “This really brings to life all the stories I’ve heard over the years about this part of the city’s history. It’s hard to grasp that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops.”

One of the most important — and saddest — among a multitude of rooms that witnessed much sadness is one in which eight-year-old Annie died of the plague in 1645. A Japanese psychic, visiting in 1992, could barely enter the room because of all the misery she felt there. As she turned away, she claimed to feel a tug at her leg. Annie, in rags with long dirty hair, was standing by the window, crying because she had lost her family, her dog and her doll. The psychic brought Annie a doll to comfort her –- and people from around the world have been leaving trinkets and toys ever since.

Key chains, jewelry, dolls, stuffed animals line the walls as a shrine to the sad little child who has long since passed away. ”What a sad story,” laments 10-year-old Harriet Peterson, visiting from London. She slowly adds the small stuffed teddy bear she is hugging to the other offerings.
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There was a lot of life lived within these buildings –- and a lot of lives lost. As one of the most fascinating and unique walks –- literally — through history I’ve yet to tread, the unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, the serpentine alleyways remained with me, even as I explored the many other, more traditional sites of Historic Edinburgh.

The Real Mary King’s Close is open daily, with tours at 15-minute intervals. Price is adults, $23; children 5-15, $13; seniors and students, $20. For more information, please contact: VisitBritain at 1-877/899-8391 or visit www.realmarykingsclose.com.

What do William Wordsworth, William Yeats and Jemima Puddle-Duck have in common? Well, they all lived in and around the fairy-tale villages of England’s Lake District, but only one of them actually is a fairy tale. And possibly the most famous of the three — at least among the under-10 set. Ms. Puddle-Duck, along with her good friends and neighbors, Peter Rabbit, Samuel Whiskers and Pickles among many others, were brought to life by Beatrix Potter, another famous resident of the Lake District — and the one most responsible for maintaining the environmental integrity of the area since her death in 1943 when she donated 14 properties to the National Trust thereby preserving much of the land that now comprises the Lake District National Park.

Okay, is there anyone who actually made it through childhood without at least a cursory introduction to Peter rabbit, Flopsy and Mopsy and that mean old farmer McGregor? Well, this is where they lived until Beatrix caught them and immortalized them forever in little 5” by 4”-sized books.

Her books sold more than any other children’s stories ever although I suspect Pat the Bunny, Peter’s more tactile cousin, has since given him a run for his money…

So first, something about that Lake District which Beatrix Potter so loved. The countryside is so tantalizingly green the color needs a new more enchanting name.

Quintessentially English replete with requisite sheep, rolling hedgerows, low slung stone walls criss-crossing the landscape into checkerboard squares, slate-roofed stone houses, and hot pink, orange-gold and deep purple explosions of color so vibrant as to rival the most brightly lit of neon Nikes so popular today. And by contrast, in the middle of the district, craggy mountainous regions lend an even more dramatic flair. And, oh yes, then there are the lakes — 16 of them; ergo, the District’s name.
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A world so clichely picturesque, with OMG moments at every turn, which serves to explain the many artists who flocked here to replicate its beauty on canvas. An entire expanse of visual wonderment extending for miles in every direction that makes scenic overlook signs ridiculously redundant. All of which is a walker’s wonderland with public footpaths as plentiful on every country road as Starbucks are on every street corner in the U.S. No wonder Beatrix Potter fell in love.

I saw so many rabbits scampering about as we hiked the countryside, I felt this was an open invitation — as it must have been for Beatrix — to follow them further into their world, even if that turned out to be a very commercial but wonderfully inventive, creative, interactive enterprise appropriately nicknamed The World of Peter Rabbit. But more on that later.

And splattered throughout the countryside are hilly historic towns with cobblestone streets and hidden alleyways that now sport shops, pubs and curbside cafes, with such lyrical names as Branthwaite Brow, All Hollows and Beast Bank Lane. And a lot more stone, this time on buildings, many from the 16th-18th centuries, evoking memories of Renaissance–era maidens and merchants plying their trade, oblivious to the KFC establishment right across the street.

But there is nothing modern about a visit to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s home for 38 years and the site of many of her creations’ adventures. Many homes reflect the personalities of their owners — and sometimes even their pets. But rarely is a home so filled with the immediacy of its owner’s creations as is Hill Top, first purchased in 1905, that they appear so alive as to permeate not only the house but the surrounding village and countryside, all of which became additional characters in what were soon to become a series of beloved children’s books. And once you enter the grounds and garden of Hill Top, with all its original furnishings, you are transported back to the world as it was until the day she died. Except for the occasional young visitor who has been known to ask the guides, “So is she Harry Potter’s granny?”
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Pick up “A Tale of Samuel Whiskers” lying about as you walk in and follow the book’s tale as you see the holes where the mice lived that threatened Tom Kitten! You can accompany Pigland Bland as he wanders thru the village and seek to protect Jemima Puddle-Duck’s egg as it lays hidden in the rhubarb patch. You can almost hear the Two Bad Mice discussing the ham and cheese that don’t seem quite edible because they are, of course, from Beatrix’s doll house which is right in front of you in the parlor.
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And not only her stories — but her life. Her desks contain letters she wrote, often illustrated with little cartoons and drawings; the first edition of Peter Rabbit, which started simply as a story written in letter form in September 1893 to cheer up a sick son of her former governess, is available for viewing.

The whole house becomes alive through the illustrations in her stories – or is it that the illustrations become alive because they re-create the reality of her home? The parlor contains a table with some partially eaten biscuits and some correspondence Beatrix was evidently in the process of completing — clearly she is expected to return at any moment…

So much of the house, the grounds and the village reflected in the books remain unchanged, you can relive the delightful tales of your youth in a way no perfunctory read in your own living room can provide.

And indeed every area shop seemingly sells some version of Peter Rabbit. memorabilia. Emblematic of how much he invades the neighborhood, when my husband and I stopped at a local pub for some requisite fish and chips, he asked about the soup of the day. When told by the bartender that it was carrot, he quipped: How appropriate. No doubt Peter Rabbit’s favorite…”
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And remember the rabbits cavorting in the countryside? Well, here’s where their namesake really comes alive. In the downtown section of Bowness-on-Windermere there stands a very different testimonial to the creations of Beatrix Potter. More commercial perhaps but no less intriguing. The World of Beatrix Potter Attractions, unconnected with the National Trust preservation of Hill Top, offers an animated version of all 23 of Potter’s tales brought to life in an indoor re-creation of the Lake District countryside she loved and her lovable characters inhabited complete with sights, sounds and smells.

I mean how thrilling is it to find that Jemima Puddle-Duck was a real duck that lived at Hill Top whose efforts to hatch her own eggs, thwarted by a conniving fox nearby, were protected by Kep the collie, Beatrix’s favorite sheepdog. You can’t get more real life than that — and we’re talking cartoon characters!

Throughout the attraction are life-size dioramas of scenes from her books, sometimes comprising an entire forest, that it’s hard to imagine that they were once only illustrations in a book the size of 4X5 inches. The whole exhibit replicates a stroll through Beatrix Potter’s home and garden.
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Each exhibit entreats the viewer to press a “Find out more” button which provides an explanation of what inspired Beatrix to write that particular story and how she developed those particular characters. Each larger-than-life display lifts the characters from the page to inhabit your consciousness in a way few fairy-tales — or for that matter, adult literary protagonists — ever will. There is so much background information about each character — and there are dozens — that it is almost impossible to absorb it all unless you are a very devoted Beatrix Potter aficionado. It’s a journey through a lifetime of literature.

Adele Wilson from Scotland, with nary a kid in tow was so obviously enthralled by the exhibits that I couldn’t resist asking why. “My granny used to read these books to me at night, and seeing these presentations brings it all back to life. I had forgotten how much I had loved all those stories.” She isn’t alone.

For more information, visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top and http://www.peterrabbit.com/en/beatrix_potter/lake_district/the_world_of_beatrix_potter_attraction.

Heels down. Toes out. Squeeze with calves, not knees. Lighten up on the reins. Sink your butt into the saddle. So began my first riding lesson at the Arizona Cowboy College in Scottsdale which was followed by instructions in grooming, shoeing, advanced riding techniques and roping. And this was just a one-day primer to what other “city slickers” channeling Billy Crystal experience in their six-day cattle drive at the College — but more on that later.

First, despite the city’s admonition of 300 days of sunshine, it was cold and rainy when we were there. And for my story, I had my cowboy shirt, hat and boots all on for the requisite photo op but ended up ensconced in multiple layers instead, including winter jacket, wool cap and gloves borrowed from the ranch. Wasn’t exactly the fashion statement I was going for.

The day began with some initial instruction from ranch manager and Jigger Boss Elaine Pawlowski, whose main goal seemed to be to keep us from falling off the horse and to avoid getting kicked when not on it.

My experience up to then had been an occasional trail ride where the horse was presented to me all spruced up and saddled and all I was expected to do was mount it. Not so here. Prior to even thinking about actually riding the animal, I was taught how to groom and brush her — Billie, a brown mare — and how to do so safely. I had never been this close to a horse from all sides, responsible for the behind-the-scenes handling. Elaine showed me how to pick up Billie’s hooves and clean out the bottom of the horseshoe with a pick, removing the excess dirt, pebbles or nails before taking her out. My first thought was, “You want me to do what?” As I was cleaning out one of her hoofs, I couldn’t help thinking there’s 1200 pounds of horse flesh here that with one thrust of the hoof I’m holding can flatten me. Fortunately, Billie was no so inclined.
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During Saddling 101, my status as first-rate tenderfoot was further confirmed when I tried to pick up the saddle — and collapsed under its weight. The idea that I was actually supposed to get it atop the horse was ludicrous. I had absolutely no clue how much work went into just getting the animal ready to be ridden, much less the intricacies involved in actually riding one in the desert.
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Riding a horse in the desert is a very different terrain than what most riders are used to and that in part is what brought Bob and Carol Skinner, local race horse owners and my cohorts at the ranch, to the College.

Bob, who has been around a lot of very different race horse disciplines all his life, claimed that each discipline thinks its methods are the right ones in terms of training and expertise. Always looking to learn something new, Bob says he came to Cowboy College to see how the cowboys do it as opposed to racers. Might be something he can incorporate into his own horse-related efforts. That much I understood. What came as a surprise was that as much as Bob knew about horses on the ground, he did not really ride. And while Carol did, her expertise was with racehorses; cowboy steeds were still a mystery.

To begin with, racers ride Eastern saddles which carry with them very proscribed rules of posture and deportment much more regimented than the more relaxed rules of Western riding. For starters, two-handed split reins vs. one-handed neck rein — after all, in the West, one hand must be free to shoot rattlesnakes and rope steers. Amazing how much of how you and your horse interact is determined by how you hold the reins.
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Prior to heading out on our ride, we hunkered down to the bunkhouse for chow. The fact that it was bologna,ham and cheese on white bread with mayo seemed perfectly fitting. And the To Do list I spied on a bench near the stalls was slightly different than that found in most homes: Fix stalls 3,4, and 11; arrange tack rooms; cut off screws on saddle racks; clean out coops.

And then we headed out — me on Billie, a Quarterhorse, Carol on a Mustang, Bob on a Paint. Bob commented that just squeezing with his calves as opposed to his knees made an immediate difference. In the East, most trail rides are through woods; here we loped through sand and rocks and sagebrush, past cactus as tall as small buildings over a monochromatic panorama of gray and tan and muted greens. Did I say trail? Nope, no trail — just feeling our way over, around and through the rocky wasteland.
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As we rested our horses atop a mesa in the Tonto National Forest, I looked out admiringly at the wide expanse of desert below, poetic mountains in the distance and a sky the color of every shade of blue found in even the largest box of Crayola crayons. This alone was worth the pain I expected to feel later in the day.

As we continued our ride, punctuated by an unending array of rocky inclines and descents, Bob and Carol became increasingly dismayed. Apparently, the uneven landscape and Western style of riding were alien to the two racehorse owners. The idea of riding horses over such a threatening terrain was a foreign concept, much less at a speed sufficient to maintain the momentum necessary to scale the crest of the embankment. Elaine kept reassuring them that, indeed, the horses were fine with it. She also kept reminding Carol, accustomed to riding English where proper posture is so important, to stay low in the saddle and resist the temptation to ride “two point.”

When I finally dismounted Billie, my legs were so wobbly I could barely make it to the corral. And we weren’t done yet — it was now time for our roping lesson. Fortunately, no actual calves were involved.
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For those signed up for the complete Cowboy College program, this would have been just Day 1. Day 2 would be a more intense immersion into the cowboy’s world — this time actually involving cows — before heading out to the cattle ranch about 25 miles to the north. Once there, the next four days are spent doing whatever needs to be done — rounding up the cows, moving cattle from one pasture to another, finding missing steer, branding and castrating, vaccinating, separating the mamas from the calves, fixing fences and checking water supplies, or helping other ranchers. That’s the life of the cowboy and the wanna-bes act accordingly.

According to Elaine, “Participants range from novices to more experienced riders but no matter what the level of expertise, after riding 5-6 hours a day and being immersed in cowboy training, they’re pretty comfortable and ready for the trail experience.”

Okay, so I wasn’t ready to go on a multi-day cattle round-up but I sure did have a whole new respect for anyone who does. The plus for me? Considering the difficulty I had walking the next day, I was glad that — unlike those participating in the whole program — I did not have to get back up on a horse. For more information, visit cowboycollege.com.

If You Go

To extend my immersion in everything cowboy, I stayed in the Wild West Suite, one of six theme suites, at the Inn of Eagle Mountain where a saddle on a stand doubles as a night table, the lamp bases are made of horseshoes and the furniture is decked out in western decor. The Inn itself, in Fountain Hills, is a beautiful boutique establishment terraced in the foothills of the Sonoran Desert. Visit innateaglemountain.com

To many people, Monticello and Charlottesville, Virginia are synonymous. Indeed, even more than his famous home, the presence of Thomas Jefferson the Man can be felt throughout the quiet college town, about a three-hour drive from Washington, D.C.

For any history buff, a tour of Monticello is heaven, but even those less historically inclined will be enthralled by fascinating displays of Jefferson the Creative Homeowner. In fact, Jefferson — governor, ambassador to France, secretary of state, and the third president of the United States — when asked his profession, replied: “I’m a farmer.” Indeed, gardening and architecture, two of his life-long passions, are reflected throughout his beloved home and grounds.
Few homes anywhere more accurately reflect the personality of their owners than does Monticello. From the time his vision began as a young bachelor to his death as a widower with 12 grandchildren, Monticello remained at the center of Jefferson’s heart. He was responsible for almost every detail of its design, construction, furnishings and remodeling, a process that spanned over 40 years.

The fact that about 75 percent of the furnishings are original helps bring to life the sense of Jefferson the Private Citizen. For example, handsomely adorning a wall of the front entrance are several sets of antlers that Lewis and Clark brought back as personal souvenirs from their famous Louisiana Purchase expedition — no easy task considering the travel conditions of the time — commissioned by then-president Jefferson in the early 1800s.

Many innovations designed by Jefferson, influenced by his years in Paris, were ahead of their time. Doors that automatically open continue to operate today, 190 years later. A seven-day wall clock which indicates both day and hour still chimes. Jefferson introduced dumb waiters, first seen in a Paris cafe, to Virginian society, as he did skylights, twelve of which shed light throughout the mansion. And a desk constructed to display five open books at a time attests to Jefferson’s renowned literary prowess.
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Even the dinners he served, prepared by a slave who was trained by a French chef, reflected Jefferson’s cosmopolitan tastes. A list of guests reads like a Who’s Who of early American history. The statesmen, politicos and socialites who walked here before you — among them James Monroe, James Madison, Daniel Webster and, of course, the Marquis de Lafayette — wrote many a chapter in our country’s history over coffee and brandy.
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Interestingly enough, the many political positions he held meant little to Jefferson. Writing his own epitaph, he focused instead upon three accomplishments: Author of the Declaration of Independence; Author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. The latter becomes more than self-evident — to borrow a favorite Jeffersonian phrase – once you get there.

A visit to the University of Virginia brings you back to modern times — but only for a moment. Jefferson’s vision of his “Academical Village” became reality during 1817-1826 and the University continues to function much as its founder intended. Welcome back to the 1800s.

In addition to offering arguably the finest education among public institutions available to capable students “regardless of wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstances” — producing more Rhodes Scholars than any other state university — UVA maintains a tradition of student self-governance, including a student-run Honor System (that, unlike some, actually works – at least most of the time…).

Although the University has expanded since Jefferson’s time — the initial student population of 40 has grown to over 20,000 — Jefferson’s original buildings remain much as they were. The Rotunda, a scaled-down version of the Pantheon in Rome, was designed to maintain architectural balance in harmony with the five Pavilions on either side, which house classrooms and faculty residences. The original library it housed was considered a temple to knowledge rather than religion.
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Jefferson envisioned a scholarly community where students and professors live in close proximity to share knowledge and together nurture a life-long commitment to education. To help achieve that goal, he intermingled students’ rooms among the Pavilions, connecting them with low colonnaded walkways.

The expansive Lawn between the two rows of buildings and the serpentine walled-gardens weaving in, out and around the Pavilions provide quiet space for personal reflection and personal connections between teacher and student. This was a radical approach to education at the time.
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Jefferson’s “outdoor classroom” afforded both students and faculty the opportunity to experience first hand examples of classical architecture not readily familiar to the American public. The stately columns forming the Pavilion’s facade reflect Ionic, Doric and Corinthian models of Greek and Roman temples. Attesting to the durability of Jefferson’s forward-thinking aesthetics, the American Institute of Architects has proclaimed the Academical Village the most significant architectural achievement in the nation’s first 200 years.

The 54 student rooms along the Lawn are astonishingly unchanged since the University opened. The 15-foot-square rooms contain a wooden bed, an old-fashioned secretary’s desk, fireplace and a small free-standing wooden closet which contains a sink. Other plumbing facilities — minor amenities such as showers and toilets — are located a bracing winter’s walk away.

Upon first viewing, I assumed they were just another historical attraction that recreates living conditions — in this case, of students — in the early 1800s. Imagine my surprise to find that students today actually vie for the honor of living there! A select few fourth-year students who have made substantial contributions to the University are chosen for the opportunity to closely approximate the lifestyle of the scholars of the day who lived and studied in these same rooms.
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It is not surprising that Jefferson invested so much heart and soul into his final triumph. The University embodies Jefferson’s three greatest passions: his vision as an educator, his talent as an architect, and his skill as a gardener. Even more so than at Monticello.

The very essence of his dream — the interactive student/faculty community, the student-run University governance, the personal code of ethics — still permeates how campus residents think and act today. Thomas Jefferson is alive and well and still attending the University of Virginia.

As he is throughout the rest of the area. Walking tours trod streets upon which Jefferson no doubt frequently strolled, past businesses, taverns and other local establishments he patronized. It is with good reason that Charlottesville and environs are often so lovingly referred to as Mr. Jefferson’s Country.

If You Go

A stay at the venerable Boar’s Head Inn, built in 1965 with a restaurant dating back to 1834 and now owned by the University, continues the connection with Jefferson. Famous for his healthy lifestyle, Jefferson studied the healing properties of many herbs and botanicals – and these same plants are currently being incorporated into spa treatments designed to treat specific ailments. As promoted by the resort: “Where the past combines with the present to make a healthier future – while making your experience historic.” Jefferson still lives at Monticello, studies at UVA and relaxes at the Boar’s Head Spa… For more information, go to visitcharlottesville.org or boarsheadinn.com.

Picture this: From 1948 to 1999, the U.S. Department of Navy bombed the hell out of its own country. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration — but here’s what happened. From the early 1940’s, the U.S. military used a good part of Vieques, Puerto Rico, a small island off the coast, as a training ground for ship-to-shore gunfire, air-to-ground bombing, and Marine amphibious landings. Up until April 1999, about 120 days a year were devoted to integrated land-sea-air live-fire exercises (i.e., exercises with explosive ammunition) by U.S. aircraft carrier and amphibious-ready groups preparing to deploy overseas. Although residents had strongly objected for decades, it was not until a Puerto Rican security guard was accidentally killed by an errant bomb in April 1999 that the opposition began in earnest, garnering support from the mainland, including political leaders and celebrities from around the world. As of May 2003 all military operations were suspended, leaving the island isolated and decimated, but ironically with much of its undeveloped natural beauty outside the military compounds intact. And therein lies the rub. Now picture this: From bomb site to beach resort — and therein lies the story. While the Navy has been busy these past 10 years cleaning up the parts of the island it destroyed, the rest of the island is gearing up — albeit slowly — to join the rest of Puerto Rico as a Caribbean tourist destination. . The massive clean-up involves getting rid of unexploded ordinances, metal and scrap debris and chemicals in the soil. As one safety notice advises: If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up! Not your usual anti-litter admonition.

Okay, the island still has no traffic light, no movie theater, no American fast-food restaurants (thankfully), and no nightlife. Still, there are now seven more car rental companies than during the Navy occupation (when there was one) as well as a couple of dive operations, horseback riding stables, sailing options and several tour companies. And did I mention a W Hotel? That’s got to mean something. But although the 157-room property is a tourist magnet, the next closest property in size is the 30-room Brik Hotel, which hasn’t yet opened. The rest are guesthouses. The island is not exactly leap-frogging into tourism territory.
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But Vieques is not without its unique attractions, two of which are its wild horses, descendants of those brought over by the Spaniard Conquistadors in the 1500’s, and its Bioluminescent Bay, the most glowing — literally — of the five bio-bays that exist in the world. Caveats to come.
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First, the horses. They have the run of the island and the hour’s drive from one end of the island to the other can take a lot longer depending upon how many you run into — using the term loosely… We even watched a pool boy at the upscale W chase a horse apparently to deter him from taking a dip in the resort pool. We followed close behind only to find him snacking on the property lawn, posing long enough for us to take his picture. As I turned around, I almost bumped into a sign reading, “Caution: Wild Horses Poop.” And indeed, he had.
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And, oh yes, the bio-bay. First some background. The unfortunately aptly named Mosquito Bay, considered the brightest bio-bay in the world, is home to half-plant, half-animal organisms, at a rate of 720,000 per gallon, that emit flashes of bluish/green light when agitated, preferably under a moonless night when the effect is most dramatic. And dramatic it is — as the entire bay explodes beneath you in a fireworks display you’ve never seen before. But not for us. Because of some ill-will of nature, blamed at the time on excessive rain and cool temperatures (for Puerto Rico), the bay was mostly dark.

Still, just the stars alone were worth the trip — almost. With two people to a kayak, the darkness all pervasive, the quiet almost surreal, I felt like I was floating in a private, other-worldly lagoon, hampered only by the knowledge I was experiencing only the slightest remnants of what should have been an amazing Technicolor adventure. Putting my hand in the water released a flurry of gold sparkles, reminiscent of an abundance of Fourth of July sparklers beneath my fingers, as though a vast array of shooting stars from the sky fell into the water — and this was just a fraction of what it should be when a blue-green haze dominates the water and the fish swimming around trigger a reaction that brings the entire bay alive. My disappointment at having missed such a spectacle made me feel like a little kid deprived of a toy I desperately wanted.
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I came to Vieques with a preconceived notion that because of all the destruction that occurred, the resurrection of Vieques as a tourist destination would revolve around conservation, sustainability and decreased environmental impact. Not so — or at least, not yet. Ironically, although tourism has indeed increased, there does not seem to be any island-wide plan to deal with it in any coordinated “green” fashion.

There are less than 10,000 people on Vieques — and seemingly, everyone knows everyone else. Locals have a fierce pride in their island and a universal disappointment that so much has been planned or promised and so little has been done. You can see the wistfulness in their eyes as they talk about what the island so desperately needs in terms of education, health care provisions, infrastructure, environmental protections and tourism services.

And in truth, they are also in conflict over how much development they want. More and more foreigners — which is how they allude to Americans, despite their shared U.S. citizenship — are invading their quiet, undeveloped, pristine locale with its sparkling, isolated beaches opening restaurants and other tourist establishments, and they are unsure what the future will bring –- and whether it will be positive. Vieques may or may not be on the verge of a tourist boom, and it’s questionable exactly whom all this new development will actually benefit.
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Everyone on Vieques has a story and everyone who comes there knows someone else who either had their own story or knows someone else who did. You don’t come to Vieques by accident. With Caribbean island tourism not yet a reality, the question most often asked by one visitor to the next? “What brought YOU to Vieques?” And the answer is almost always a friend, a relative, a colleague; it is never advertising or travel agent. And while tour companies, diving operations and sailing options have doubled in the last five years, infrastructure has lagged. Although many of the main roads are easily traversable, there are some leading to recommended beaches that boast car-eating potholes ahead and jeep-attacking tree branches on all sides, and are so bumpy that none of my limbs and internal organs ended up in the same place they started out in. At some point this will change.

Vieques is a visual delight, a portrait in green and blue — and many shades of brown if you count the horses — and you have to — they’re everywhere. It is undisturbed by development — but that will not always be so. Go now while it is still unspoiled (by anything other than the Navy…) and before it becomes just another over-developed Caribbean island, possibly losing the unique character that is so very much Viequesian. For information about visiting Vieques, call (800) 866-7827 or log onto seepuertorico.com/en/destinations/culebra-and-vieques.

”Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” It’s a basic precept taught to almost every American child, but how many know that the renowned “Golden Rule” originated with Confucius more than 2500 years ago?

And perhaps equally surprising to many Americans? What did not originate with him are the many proverbs and prognostications attributed to him through fortune cookies distributed in Chinese restaurants nationwide. Just as an aside, not a single fortune cookie exists in China. And needless to say, those who follow Confucius worldwide celebrate a philosophy that extends well beyond the Golden Rule. A recent visit to Qufu, Confucius’s hometown in Shandong Province, China, immersed me in his life, his teachings and his legacy in a very personal way.

First, a little background. Born Qiu Kong in 551 B.C. and raised by his poor, unwed single mother, Confucius early on immersed himself in studies and sought to distinguish himself by mastering the arts usually reserved to those of noble birth: riding chariots, archery, music, mathematics, calligraphy and the rituals of living well. These will become important later on in our story. Among the principles espoused by Confucius was an emphasis on loyalty, benevolence, wisdom, bravery, simplicity and a basic respect for others that stretched from family relationships to interpersonal ones to those between subjects and rulers. Though they seem like very basic ideas today, during feudal times they were revolutionary.

And throughout his life, he sought to convince local warlords and later emperors (mostly posthumously) that ruling in a just and fair way would reap greater loyalty among their subjects than the totalitarian methods most adopted at the time. He found very few takers. It is one of the many ironies of Confucius’s life that the very emperors whose practices he would have disavowed later came to pay great homage to him. Near the end of his life, he returned to Qufu disillusioned and depressed, where he continued to teach until he died poor and unrecognized at the age of 73. Although his students numbered around 3000, 72 of them became actual disciples, gathered his teachings into a book called the “Analects,” and continued to spread his word until be eventually became renowned as the “Sage of China.”
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Traveling through the city of Qufu traces his life from birth to death and well beyond. Enroute to the Temple of Confucius, the second largest ancient building complex in China, we walked the streets where he played as child. A simple man who emphasized balance and harmony in all things, he probably would be appalled by all the souvenir stands lining both sides.

First built in 479 B.C., two years after his death, the temple started out as a small abode for his clothes, books, instruments, etc. and was expanded by every dynasty that followed until it reached 466 rooms by the mid-16th century. Every gate, sculpture and stile in some way celebrates his teachings or praises his thinking, whether a commemoration of harmony in relationships or benevolence or respect. Not to be outdone, every emperor in China’s history came to the temple and built a pavilion in his honor -– whether that of Confucius or the emperor himself is unclear.
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Confucius was an only child but being the over-achiever that he was, there are now 120,000 descendants with the last name of Kong currently living in Qufu, population 600,000. Not much happens there that doesn’t involve a living relative. And historically, his relatives -– or more specifically, the oldest male descendant of each generation –- lived a life of ease that far surpassed that enjoyed by Confucius.

The Kong Family Mansion was originally built during the Song Dynasty over 1000 years ago and was first occupied by the oldest direct male descendant of the 46th generation. Displays throughout the mansion, which served as home for the Kong family for over 800 years, are reminiscent of his teachings: one illustrates his views on dispensing justice emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment; others display symbols of peace and happiness or warn against greed or disobeying laws.
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One of my favorite rooms is the reception hall in which the 77th descendant, the last to live there, got married in 1937. Chiang Kai-Shek was supposed to host the festivities but unfortunately was arrested enroute by one of his opposing generals. One of the visible wedding presents is a sofa given the couple by American diplomat George Marshall, whose name later became synonymous with the post-WWll recovery plan. How fitting that men of political influence continued to honor Confucius throughout the centuries.

As renowned as the Kong family was and continues to be in life, so too are they honored in death. The family cemetery, which is more than 2500 years old, houses Confucius as well as 100,000 of his relatives. Since it’s the largest family graveyard in the world, presumably there will be room for the other 120,000 still wandering around Qufu.
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In addition to the historically accurate representations of Confucius’s life –- and death — Six Arts City, an educational theme park, has been created to replicate the experience of Confucius teachings. Each art that Confucius mastered in his early years has its own exhibit area: archery, music, charioteering, calligraphy, ritual and mathematics. And although I felt it strange to have the high-minded philosophy of Confucius reduced to a theme park ride, still it is well-done for what it is. INSERT SIX ARTS EXHIBIT

In response to a query I made to Kong Xiang Sheng, a 75th-generation descendant and Director of Confucius’s Archive Museum, as to the pressure descendants feel based on the importance of their ancestry, he replied: “We all feel a sense of strict responsibility to follow a path of righteousness as much in our daily lives as possible, to set a good example for our families. A Kong family member would never disobey any laws because they would be banned from burial in the family cemetery.”
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And as for those ubiquitous fortune cookies in America? Would Confucius be insulted by them? “Well,” surmised Kong, “although they may not be an accurate reflection of Confucianism, they are still a way to let people know about him as a dispenser of wisdom –- even if not originally in the form of fortune cookie quotes.” For more information about Qufu and other parts of Shandong Province, visit travelshandong.com.

When I was first blindfolded, I felt disoriented, out of control, with the added annoying question lurking in the back of my head: I am a travel writer, how am I supposed to take notes? But our Mayan guide propelled me back into the moment by explaining that when our sight -– our main sense in relating to the world around us –- is cut off, the others senses are expanded. And I had better start paying attention.
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Thus began our Sense Adventure Tour, part of a larger eco-oriented nature park and sustainable tourism program at the Hacienda Tres Rios Resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico.

So I initially sensed the jungle, rather than saw it.

Nothing can hurt you, we were reassured. Just trust in yourself and follow your senses. Do not talk, please – communicate only with yourself. And become one with the universe. How does one do that?
First came the sounds. Were they cymbals? Triangles? What did they mean? Were they supposed to mean something? But I didn’t have time to ponder before the next sensory assault — this time different textures caressing my feet as we proceeded blindfolded and bare foot, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us. From gravel to burlap, wooden slats to smooth slate to soft rug, we moved about our mini-jungle over an hour’s time. Then a baby laughed – or was it crying – followed by a clash of thunder and then the sounds stopped being a focus and just began to wash over me, as did the bucket of pebbles dumped on my head. I felt like I was being buried. Was that it? Were the baby’s cries rebirth? I had no idea.
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The only time the blindfold was removed was within a tent with constellations of stars twinkling overhead — the universe we’re supposed to feel a part of. Blindfold back in place, the avalanche of sensory overload continued – smells, textures, taste, sounds. All the senses were challenged, often in conjunction with one another, sometimes competing, sometimes complimentary – should I pay attention to the Native American chants or focus on the pebbles pored over my body or the cinnamon under my nose or just give in to the swaying of my body being encouraged by the guides.

Periodically, the guides placed our hands on our heart, reminding us to breathe – the theme repeated – listen to your heart beat – this is what keeps us alive. Feel the universe living and moving inside you.

More sounds, this time a beating drum, ever increasing tempo – guides moved various body parts where they wanted them, hands in front one moment to smell a splash of oil, waving about another in time to the rhythm of the beat. Now chanting once again — feel small seeds flowing through my fingers, taste a sliver of chocolate melt upon my tongue, gravel this time beneath my feet. I’m somewhat annoyed with myself for thinking I’m pretty sure I’m going to find a bunch of pebbles in my underwear later that night. Such a plebian thought feels antithetical to the experience. I refocus – hear a semblance of a heartbeat in the background. I’m not sure whether it’s mine or theirs.
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Then I felt the coldness of a small candle holder in one hand and heat generated by it as my other hand passed over it. The transient thought of how do they do that passed through only to be overshadowed by the incongruous reality itself. And shortly thereafter, I was once again moving to the sounds – I lost track of what they were – but I knew I was simulating the flying motions of a bird. Even though I had no idea what ritual I was taking part in, I felt a sense of belonging – that I was somehow connected to something that was important in some past culture.
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I didn’t know how it was done but it was not important – I breathed in – I exhaled – I moved my arms and swayed my body – I was alone yet part of a larger whole – and it all felt right. And again, my hands were placed on my heart. When not floating in air or touching my heart, my hands were on the shoulder of the person in front of me, traversing about our own private world, wondering what tactile surprise lay ahead.

Sounds again – fire, thunder, rain, birds, planes and wind – and of course, the repetitive chanting – but with maracas in hand now, I could share in the experience directly. And yes, this was my dance – with that of the others – whoever the others might be – everyone moved to their own rhythm – somehow in concert with each other – and I could feel that even through the blindfold.
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I was given a smooth stone soft to the touch with which I was told to caress my face – supplemented by a more rigid scraggly conch shell which I could easily identify. I couldn’t resist holding it to my ear to try to hear the ocean – but then I realized the sounds were coming from behind me – crashing waves. And now, I felt the rainwater I only heard before – icy cold and down my back. It was the only time I heard collective sounds of first shock and then guffaws from my compatriots.

Thunder abounded – and then the raindrops flowed – followed by a windstorm. Somehow I knew that it was all being manufactured, but I didn’t care – it felt real. Now I was asked to clang the smooth stone and the rugged conch shell together to make some more native music, and yet again, the hands are returned to the heart – of course. I started to welcome the gesture as a way of coming home – feeling grounded.

I followed all the instructions as the guides moved my body, arms and hands in different directions and knew I had the choice – I could resist and ask why – or acquiesce and say why not? I feel both on a personal journey and part of a larger connection, as though I was attuned to some greater Mayan or Native American or whatever other culture I sensed was behind it. I felt connected with the elements, with nature.

“And so nature comes to say to us the earth is my body, the water is my blood, the air is my breath, the fire is my spirit,” so sayeth the guide as we near the end. “In front of you is a mirror. See your reflection and know that somewhere inside you, if you have a question, you will find an answer. All the universe is inside you.”

As I removed my blindfold and gazed upon my reflection in the cenote pool in front of me, I was not sure I felt one with the universe but I certainly felt I had experienced a very unique part of it in a magical hour’s time.

For more information, visit http://www.haciendatresrios.com/riviera-maya/nature-park/nature-park-activities where you will find not only the Sense Adventure, but a number of other unusual activities such as snorkeling and kayaking in a cenote, an Xtreme Adventure tour, Segway rides and Hobie Cat outings, and an introductory tour of the many trend-setting sustainable tourism aspects of the hotel. Hacienda Tres Rios was constructed only on areas of low-environmental value with the least adverse impact, and includes water-saving techniques that don’t sacrifice pressure, rooms that are “intelligently designed” to be both high tech and high comfort but low impact, with 120 varieties of native plants in the park that do not require much in the way of water, fertilizer, or pesticides. It has recently been named to TripAdvisor’s 2014 list of the Top 25 Resorts For Families.

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Climbing up the wide circular stone staircase to our hotel room in the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse on the first night, I knew this would be a very different trip. I could just as easily be accessing a medieval castle as a lodging facility — and then I found out I was. Although I suspect our room was a lot less drafty than those of the lords and ladies who preceded us.
Which certainly set the tone for our Walking Through History Tour of Southern France—conducted, ironically, by a company called New England Hiking. As we hiked through, around, up and over one medieval village after another, traversing castles and countryside and learning about the Middle Ages of the 11th-14th centuries, we were immersed in their history.
According to our guide, Richard Posner, every mountain, every hill, has great historic and cultural significance and his running commentary throughout the trip bore him out. Visigoth chateaux, Knights Templar towers, Cathar castles — admittedly I knew little about these guys but by the time we were done visiting their many abodes, I felt we were all old friends.
The walks ranged from easy to moderately challenging and the talks from fascinating to eyes glazed over, usually in direct proportion to the difficulty of the hikes when I might have preferred to be back at the castle courtyard relaxing with a vin de pays — but I was willing to wait. As one of our compatriots enthused about Richard: “He opens his mouth and facts fall out.” The fact that he could make these facts endlessly interesting was the real accomplishment.
Cresting a hill, I would often turn and look back down upon an expanse of beautiful countryside that was, of course, there the whole time, but I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to notice. As we walked, and everyone is encouraged to go at his/her own pace, we would come to a crossroads where multi-hued wildflowers whose fragrances accentuated the already-challenged senses, distant mountains, castle ruins, and crops of beans, vineyards and barley were all vying valiantly for attention — demanding notice in so many directions at once as to warrant whiplash.
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Our first visit was to the tiny medieval town of Cassaignes that does not see a lot of drive-by traffic. Consisting of a few houses and churches dating back 900 years, the sense of history was somewhat moderated by the large red tractor by the side of one house that appeared anachronistic by several centuries. Still, it was a start.
As we traveled from one medieval village to another, we heard stories of church intrigue and love stories, military battles and religious controversies, mysterious anecdotes of priests and royals and other local residents over the centuries that brought the towns to life in a very tangible way. For one, in the 1890’s a priest named Berenger Sauniere sold secret medieval documents he found in the hollows of the church at Rennes Les Chateaux for great sums of money. Those documents? Well, does Holy Grail mean anything to you?
And every morning, Richard’s wife, Marion, scoured the market in preparation for our picnic lunch, composed of different breads, cheeses, fresh fruit, French sweets and some local village delicacy which we feasted upon overlooking a lake, a garden, a vineyard or some random medieval ruin. Every day, the same response — it just doesn’t get any better than this!
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Accompanying us on much of our journey were the Cathars, Roman Catholic heretics who were prominent from the 10th-12th centuries, but were ultimately destroyed during the Crusades, and the Knights Templar, a well-financed military religious order of the 12th-14th centuries, and later rumored to be a secret society that exists to this day.
The impregnable Queribus Tower, the last of the Cathar castles to fall, was an old Roman structure, initially built in the 4th century. It was later refurbished by the Cathars to resist attack during the Crusades. The most recent restorations? They took place in the 13th century. This sort of time warp is ever present in southern France. The present and past – long-ago past — coexist harmoniously as one can travel back and forth through multiple centuries within a couple of hours of doing day-to-day errands.
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As we climbed the almost half-mile straight up, I couldn’t help but think “Why would anyone want to attack this place?” Obviously, I wouldn’t have made a good candidate for medieval knighthood. Views from one tower to the next compete with each other for their own personal sense of wonder and enormity of vision. But then again, how often are you looking over a vast countryside from a 360 degree angle from multiple towers in a single day?
One morning early, Richard pointed knowingly to a small abbey halfway up a mountain. Our collective response was, “You’re kidding, of course?” He wasn’t. Not only did we make it to the abbey, we reached the top of the mountain. Admittedly, the ascent itself was much less challenging than it appeared, but we still all felt unduly proud.
Near Rennes les Bains, we stopped at Mount Cardou, where one of the most controversial of the Knights Templar theories is in evidence — that within the mountainside is a cave containing the buried remains of the body of Christ. Whether true or not, just standing there felt like a spiritual experience. The Knights were ostensibly eliminated as a religious order by the 14th century — although that may be a surprise to Dan Brown whose DaVince Code perpetuated many of these theories.
But nothing we had seen up to then could prepare us for Carcassone, one of Europe’s largest and best preserved fortified cities, an entire medieval town protected by almost two miles of double walls and 52 watchtowers.
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Hard to imagine yourself walking among the knights, priests and ladies of the time with the proliferation of cafes and souvenir shops keeping you grounded in the modern world. Still, how often do you ask for directions to a bathroom and are told to take a right turn over the drawbridge? I managed to avoid the moat enroute…
Late in the evening or early in the morning when most of the tourists are gone, it’s much easier to imagine yourself a Cathar merchant meandering the cobblestone streets, through the maze of bridges, towers, concentric walls, castles, archways, tunnels and streets so narrow you can reach out your arms and touch both sides simultaneously. And then once they let the crowds back in, it’s possible to imagine another similarity to medieval times – only now the throngs, equally motivated, are coming to shop rather than siege.
As we left Carcassone, our exposure to medieval architecture and lifestyle wasn’t over, but our connection with the Cathars and the Knights Templar was, so it seemed an appropriate time to say au revoir.
For more information about the Walking Through History Tour of Southern France, visit nehikingholidays.com or call 800-869-0949.